"In the midst of obscurity passed the life of Butler, a man whose name can only perish with his language. The mode and place of his education are unknown; the events of his life are variously related; and all that can be told with certainty is, that he was poor."
Such are the expressive words with which Dr. Johnson winds up his meagre account of the witty author of Hudibras. A more significant finish to a poet's biography could scarcely be given. A more striking instance of national neglect, and the ingratitude of posterity, is no where to be found.
Strensham, in Warwickshire, claims the honour of his birth. His father is said to have been an honest farmer there, with a small estate, who made a shift to educate his son at the grammar-school at Worcester, whence he is supposed to have gone to the university, but whether of Oxford or Cambridge, is matter of dispute. His brother asserted that it was Cambridge, but could not tell at which hall or college. Dr. Nash discovered that his father was owner of a house and a little land, worth about eight pounds a-year, which, in Johnson's time, was still called Butler's tenement.
When we consider the humble position of the father, we can only wonder that he contrived to give him an education at a classical school at all, and may very well doubt, with the great lexicographer, whether he in reality ever did study at Cambridge. Having, however, given his son a learned education, his resources were exhausted, he had no patronage, and the young man became, and might probably think himself fortunate in doing so, a clerk to a justice of peace, Mr. Jefferys, of Earl's Croomb, in Worcestershire. Here he appears to have passed an easy and agreeable life. "He had," says Johnson, "not only leisure for study, but for recreation; his amusements were music and painting; and the reward of his pencil was the friendship of the celebrated Cooper. Some pictures, said to be his, were shown to Dr. Nash, at Earl's Croomb; but when he inquired for them some years afterwards, he found them destroyed to stop windows, and owns that they hardly deserved a better fate."
From this gentleman's service, he passed into that of the Countess of Kent. The celebrated John Selden was then steward of the countess, and it was probably through him, or for his purposes, that Butler was introduced into the family. He was much noticed by Selden, and employed by him as an amanuensis. Whether this was the actual capacity in which he stood in the family of the countess, is, like almost every other event of his life, however, quite unknown. One thing seems certain, that, both at Mr. Jefferys' and here, he had been turned loose into great libraries, the sort of pasture that he of all others liked, and had devoured their contents to some purpose, as is manifested in his writings. These were the real colleges at which he studied, and where he laid up enormous masses of information.
His next remove was into the family of Sir Samuel Luke, one of Cromwell's officers. This was the decisive circumstance of his life. Sir Samuel was the hero of his future poem, — the actual Hudibras. But he was here in the very centre of republican action, and sectarian opinion and discussion. In Sir Samuel, he had a new and rich study of character; in those about him a new world, abounding with all sorts of persons, passages, and doctrines, which made him feel that he had also a world unknown still in himself, that of satirical fun infinite. Into this world he absorbed all the new views of things; the strange shapes that came to and fro; the strange phraseology and sounds of conventicle hymns that assailed his ears. The historian and poet of the new Land of Goshen, where all was light, while the neighbouring Egypt of royalty was all in darkness, was born into it; and Hudibras, and his Squire Ralph, Sidrophel, Talgol and Trulla, the Bear and Fiddle, all sprung into immortal existence.
The story of the utter neglect of Butler by the king and court, at the time that not only they, but all royalists in the kingdom, were bursting with laughter over Hudibras, is too well known. Once it was hoped that he was on the verge of good fortune, and Mr. Wycherley was to introduce him to the all-powerful Duke of Buckingham. The story of this interview is too characteristic to be passed over.
"Mr. Wycherley," says Packe, "had always laid hold of an opportunity which offered of representing to the Duke of Buckingham how well Mr. Butler had deserved of the royal family, by writing his inimitable Hudibras, and that it was a reproach to the court, that a person of his loyalty and wit should suffer in obscurity, and under the want he did. The duke always seemed to hearken to him with attention enough; and after some time undertook to recommend his pretensions to his majesty. Mr. Wycherley, in hopes to keep him steady to his word, obtained of his grace to name a day, when he might introduce that modest and unfortunate poet to his new patron. At last an appointment was made, and the place of meeting was agreed to be the Roebuck. Mr. Butler and his friend attended accordingly; the duke joined them; but as the d—l would have it, the door of the room where they sate was open, and his grace, who had seated himself near it, observing a pimp of his acquaintance, — the creature, too, was a knight, — trip by with a brace of ladies, immediately quitted his engagement to follow another kind of business, at which he was more ready than at doing good offices to men of desert, though no one was better qualified than he, both in regard of his fortune and understanding, to protect them; and from that time to the day of his death, poor Butler never found the least effect of his promise!"
The brightest gleam of his life would seem to be between his quitting Sir Samuel Luke's and the publication of his Hudibras; but when this exactly took place, and how long this lasted, we are not informed. It must, however, have taken place between the king's return, which was in 1659, and 1664, some five years or so. During this period he was made secretary to the Earl of Carberry, president of the principality of Wales, who made him steward of Ludlow castle, when the Court of Marches was revived.
This was a post in which a poet might feel himself well placed. This ancient castle of the Lacys and Mortimers stands at the west end of the town of Ludlow, on a bold rock, overlooking the river Corve, and near the confluence of that river and the Teme. Many striking events had occurred here since the time that William the Conqueror bestowed it on Roger de Montgomery, from whose descendants it passed successively into the hands of the crown, the Warines, the Lacys, and the Mortimers. On the borders of Wales, it was a stronghold for the crown of England, and after it fell again into the hands of the king, became the palace of the President of the Marches, and often the residence of princes. Here the young king Edward V. lived, and left it only to proceed to London, into the murderous hands of his uncle, Richard III, who, within two months of his quitting this quiet asylum, had him and his brother smothered in the Tower. Here Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII, was married to Catharine of Arragon, who, after his death, was married to his brother, Henry VIII; her divorce finally leading to the Reformation in England. Here Sir Philip Sidney's father, Sir Henry Sidney, had lived, as President of the Marches; and many a scene of splendour and festivity had lit up the venerable towers, on the occasion of royal visits, and other seasons of rejoicing. Above all, it was for one of those occasions that the youthful Milton had composed his Comus; and on a visit of Charles I, in 1631, to the Earl of Bridgwater, then President of the Marches, it was performed before him, the work being founded on a real incident occurring in the Lord President's own family, which is thus related by Nightingale: — "When he had entered on his official residence, he was visited by a large assembly of the neighbouring nobility and gentry. His sons, the Lord Brackley and Sir Thomas Egerton, and his daughter, the Lady Alice, being on their journey,
To attend their father's state,
And new intrusted sceptre,
were benighted in Haywood Forest, in Herefordshire, and the lady for a short time was lost. The adventure being related to their father on their arrival at the castle, Milton, at the request of his friend, Henry Lawes, who taught music in the family, wrote the masque. Lawes set it to music, and it was acted on Michaelmas Night; the two brothers, the young lady, and Lawes himself, each bearing a part in the representation."
This single circumstance, of being the scene of the first representation of the Mask of Comus, one of Milton's most beautiful compositions, has given a perpetual interest to Ludlow castle.
The genius of Butler was of a different stamp. It wanted the sublimity, the pathos, and tender sensibilities of that of Milton; but, on the other hand, for perception of the ridiculous; for a diving into the closest folds of cant and fanatical pretence; for a rough, bold, and humorous power of sketching ordinary life; it was unrivalled. A tower is still shown as the place where he wrote a part of his Hudibras. Whether it be the precise fact or not, it is idle to inquire. There our author has resided; there he is said to have written something or other, and the very room and spot of its composition are pointed out. It is best not to be too critical; and, on the other hand, if we believe in general that where a man of genius has lived he has also written, we shall seldom he far wrong. There is little doubt that here Butler, possessed of more leisure and independence than at any other period of his life, did really revise and prepare his work for press; of which the first part was published in 1663, and the second in the year following.
Here he married Mrs. Herbert, a lady of good family, with whom he lived in comfort, if not in affluence. Of the place where Comus was first acted by the real personages of it, and where Butler brought forth his Hudibras, some idea may be gratifying to the reader. It was deserted in the first year of William and Mary, in consequence of the dissolution of the Court of the Marches. From an inventory of the goods found in Ludlow castle, bearing date 1708, in the eleventh year of Queen Anne, there appeared to be then forty rooms entire. Many of the royal apartments were in that condition; and the couch of state, and the velvet hangings were preserved. In the chapel there were still to be seen on the panels many coats of arms; and in the hail many of the same kind of ornaments, together with lances, spears, firelocks, and old armour. On the accession of George I, an order came down to unroof the buildings, and strip them of their lead. Decay consequently ensued. Several panels bearing the arms of the Lords President, were converted into wainscotting for a public-house in the town, a former owner of which enriched himself by the sale of materials clandestinely carried away. There remains also a rich embroidered carpet, hung up in the chancel of St. Lawrence's church, said to be part of the covering of the council-board. The Earl of Powis, who previously held the castle in virtue of a long lease, acquired the reversion in fee by purchase from the crown in 1811.
The whole is now a scene of venerable ruin. The castle rises from the point of a headland, and its foundations are engrafted into a bare grey rock. The north front consists of square towers with high connecting walls, which are embattled with deep interstices; and the old fosse, and part of the rock, have been formed into walks, which in 1722 were planted with beech, elm, and lime trees, by the Countess of Powis, and those trees, now grown to maturity, add exceedingly to the dignity and beauty of the scene. Through a chasm on the west runs the broad and shallow river Teme. It were too long to describe all this mass of ruins, with its various courts, remains of barracks, and escutcheoned walls. The first view of the interior of the castle is fine. The court is an irregular square area, not very spacious, but the lofty embattled structures with which it is surrounded, though in ruin, still preserve their original outlines. The spacious hail is of sixty feet by thirty, the height about thirty-five feet, and is ornamented with a door with a beautiful pointed arch. The once elegant saloon, where the splendid scene of Comus was first exhibited; where chivalry exhausted her choicest stores, both of invention and wealth, and where hospitality and magnificence blazed for many ages in succession, without diminution or decay; is now totally dilapidated, and neither roof nor floor remains.
From the time of Butler's quitting this scene of his ease and happiness, he seems to have experienced only poverty and neglect. His wife's fortune is said to have been lost through bad securities; his expectations from the royal person, or the royal party whom he had so immensely served, were wholly disappointed; and in 1680 he died, where, on the authority of the son of his truest friend and benefactor, Mr. Longueville, he had lived some years, in Rose-street, Covent-garden. Mr. Longueville exerted himself to raise a subscription for his interment in Westminster Abbey, but in vain; he therefore buried him at his own cost in the church-yard of Covent-garden. About sixty years afterwards, Mr. Bailey, a painter, Mayor o[ London, and a friend to Butler's principles, bestowed on him that monument in Westminster Abbey, which is well known.
Such were the life, fortunes, and death of the author of Hudibras, whose name, as Johnson justly observes, can only perish with his language. It was his misfortune to look for protection to a monarch, who only protected courtezans, and the most disgusting of libertines. Butler should have been a pimp, and not a poet, and he would soon have found employment enough. His neglect is but one opprobrium more added to the memory of a monarch, whose whole life was a nuisance and a disgrace to the country which tolerated him.